The incoming Trump Administration faces rockier relations with Moscow than any new U.S. President since Ronald Reagan in 1981. As Thomas Graham and Matthew Rojansky have aptly noted, America’s Russia policy has failed. This failure runs deeper than Russian challenges to U.S. interests in Ukraine or Syria, and responsibility does not lie at the feet of any single administration. One could argue, if one were so inclined, that the Obama reset did not so much fail as simply run its course.
What has collapsed beyond repair is the dream of a post-Soviet transformation of Russia into a democratic, market-oriented polity that would share the basic values and interests of the West, even if Russia and its various Western partners might not always see eye to eye. It was the vision of a Russia that, even if not seeking membership in the EU or NATO, would still be a part of a broader, collective “West” that includes countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Considerable American analytical efforts have been expended over the past twenty years on discerning whether Russia had “turned the corner,” or whether Moscow was still on the right trajectory notwithstanding various bumps along the way.
Post-post-Cold War realities have frustrated this aspiration. For the foreseeable future, there can be no serious thought of a strategic U.S.-Russian partnership. Our relations with Russia are likely to be contentious even when not downright confrontational. They will be largely transactional in those instances where we can identify either a specific shared interest or a suitable tradeoff, and will be characterized by damage control (at best) in that much larger universe of issues where we disagree. Even for a U.S. President comfortable with deal-making, the opportunities are likely to be scarce.
It is important to understand why the long-term post-Cold War U.S. policy on Russia failed. Broadly speaking, the current crisis in Western relations with Russia is rooted in four objective factors.
First, Russia was psychologically unprepared for its post-Soviet diminution in stature. Russians have complained bitterly that the United States has exploited Russia’s temporary weakness and ordained a subservient place for Russia in the post-Cold War European order. However, U.S. policy toward Russia since 1991 has not been premised on the idea that Russia must accept some permanent junior status. Rather, it has presumed that Russia must earn its status in the world, particularly in its neighborhood, and that Russia does not—any more than the United States or anyone else—enjoy any prerogatives by right. Russia has never been assigned any particular place in anyone’s geopolitical hierarchy. Rather, Russia has been allowed to compete for influence on the same terms as everyone else. And therein lies the problem.
In the West, and in postmodern Europe in particular, a country’s status and influence are based more on factors like economic prowess, innovation, and moral leadership than on the hard-power attributes traditionally associated with great powers. Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, can make no pretense to being the beacon for all humanity. With an economy in the early 1990s the size of Portugal’s (and currently about the size of Spain’s), Russia could hardly aspire to economic predominance even in Europe, let alone parity with the United States. A democratic Russia might have flexed its soft-power muscles by catalyzing the post-Soviet political transformation of Eurasia; instead, Moscow’s embrace of autocracy, both at home and abroad, has chagrined all who aspire to a Europe whole and free. Russia’s post-Soviet military, diminished but still considerable, could neither impress nor intimidate Europeans reveling in their post-Cold War peace dividend. Even possession of a nuclear arsenal could secure no more cachet in Europe for Russia than it does for Great Britain or France.
Condemned by objective circumstances to a secondary role in any conceivable post-Cold War Europe, Russia has instead opted out. A great power in its own right accustomed to leading its own bloc in global affairs, Russia was never going to play second fiddle in someone else’s geopolitical orchestra. Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Second, for Moscow to deal with the West on even a semblance of parity, Russia would need to regain a measure of the Soviet Union’s lost geopolitical heft. This goal would require at a minimum the extension of Moscow’s sway over all or most of Russia’s post-Soviet neighborhood, and preferably into Central Europe and the Balkans. This consideration dovetails nicely with the notion that Russia—rather than the Soviet Union—had been dismembered when the USSR collapsed, and that ethnic Russians should not suffer the indignity of being ruled by the likes of Latvians and Tajiks.
Objectively, however, Russia could offer little to entice its neighbors into its geopolitical camp. Russia itself led the reorientation of economic and trade ties away from the post-Soviet space toward Europe and China, and the other post-Soviet states have largely followed suit. Besides, if Russia’s neighbors could expect a boost from integration with the Russian economy, how much greater would be the advantage from integrating with more powerful economic partners like China or the European Union? Moreover, post-Soviet inertia and even the genuine, widespread nostalgia for some aspects of life in the USSR are insufficient psychological inducements for countries to make common cause with a Russia that clearly cannot, in any event, restore the perceived benefits of a bygone system. Russian governance could hardly inspire the neighbors; the dictatorial ones have no need to learn autocracy from Moscow, and those neighbors more democratically inclined could only see Russian governance as an abomination to be avoided. The genuine appeal of Russian culture could also exercise little geopolitical pull; people can enjoy (in fact, can better enjoy) their Pushkin and Rachmaninov from the safety and comfort of membership in Euro-Atlantic organizations. Ultimately, post-1991 Russia’s leverage with its neighbors was largely limited to energy subsidies and some security assistance—at least, to those post-Soviet neighbors for whom Russia was not the principal security threat.
Third, Moscow’s post-Soviet weakness has indeed been exploited—not by the West, but by Russia’s own neighbors. Smaller, weaker nations that had lived in Russia’s imperial shadow for centuries, they have made the most of the historic opportunity to reassert and consolidate their own national states. Unsurprisingly, their quest for security and prosperity attracted many of them to Euro-Atlantic institutions. Wary of a possible arrangement consigning them to a Russian sphere of interest, these countries did everything in their power to prevent the consummation of any such Yalta II deal.
Fourth, after some initial hesitation, Western states came around to the idea of enlarging NATO and the European Union for the simple reason that it was the best alternative available. Conscious of the “win the war, lose the peace” conundrum that had bedeviled Europe after the two world wars, Western leaders were anxious to use the momentum from the end of the Cold War to consolidate the continent’s security. The Central Europeans, in particular, were not willing to be left in some security gray zone, or to be bought off with half-measures like the Partnership for Peace. The West, even had it been cynical enough to cut a Yalta II deal with Moscow, was unable to force the Central Europeans to abide by such an arrangement. Unwilling to countenance a security vacuum that could have fostered instability, the West chose instead the responsible alternative of enlarging Euro-Atlantic institutions. The highly contentious (within the Alliance itself) first round of NATO enlargement was so successful that subsequent rounds have proceeded—apart from Russian unhappiness—virtually without controversy.
Thus, the fundamental conflict in U.S.-Russian relations relates to European security and proceeds not so much from policy failures on either side but from these four objective circumstances: 1) Russian dissatisfaction with the country’s diminished post-Cold War role; 2) Russia’s ambition to establish itself as a separate pole in the multipolar world of the 21st century, coupled with its paucity of means by which to do so; 3) the desire of Russia’s neighbors instead to consolidate their own independence, and the overarching priority for many of them to “rejoin Europe”; and 4) the sheer impossibility of consigning Russia’s borderlands to Russian control, and the senselessness, even danger, of leaving Central Europe in a security limbo. There have been other U.S.-Russian disagreements, to be sure—over Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Kosovo—but European security architecture, especially the arrangements involving the former Warsaw Pact and post-Soviet space, lie at the heart of bilateral tensions, and of Russian-Western discord generally.
Those who continue to call NATO enlargement an historic mistake can do so only from the perspective of Russian disgruntlement. Their two unfounded assumptions are that 1) Russia is merely reacting to a legitimate security threat—presumably an invasion of Russia by NATO; and 2) peace would reign in Europe if only Washington had not gratuitously provoked Russia by expanding its alliance into territories peripheral to the United States but lying within Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests.”
Ironically, the first assumption is completely undermined precisely by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The issue is not that Moscow perceives Ukraine as a strategic buffer zone, indispensable for Russia’s security. Rather, Russia views Ukraine as part and parcel of the Russian World and therefore as an inalienable portion of its own cultural and territorial patrimony. The problem is not that the Kremlin cannot accept the idea of Ukrainians choosing their own political system or alliances, but that Moscow is unwilling even to grant Ukrainians a right to their own separate state or nationhood. Russian nationalists from Putin on down emphasize that Russians and Ukrainians are “really” one nation. It is perfectly clear in their minds that this single nation should be governed from Moscow, not Kyiv, and should speak the language of Pushkin, not Shevchenko.
The Kremlin did not even attempt to justify the seizure of Crimea in 2014 on the grounds of Russian security, but on the even more far-fetched claim that murderous hordes of Ukrainian fascists were preparing to descend on the peace-loving Russian inhabitants of the peninsula. Moreover, the Maidan was about Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union, not about joining NATO. This distinction is a crucial one, although there have been disingenuous attempts to blur it. If the Kremlin’s concern had been genuinely about security, an Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union would have been completely anodyne. The Kremlin’s fear, however, was a rather different one: that Ukraine would consolidate its independence, adopt a European orientation, and be lost forever to the Russian World. Moscow was well aware that the persistently low level of Ukrainian support for NATO membership was an insurmountable barrier to Ukraine’s NATO accession—that is, until Russia antagonized the majority of Ukrainians by invading their country. Ukraine’s neutrality, enshrined in law, was not even an issue on the Maidan. Far from reacting rationally to some Western threat, Russia now has a security problem of its own making in Ukraine where none had existed before. If Russians feel genuinely threatened by NATO military aggression, then the Kremlin has been downright suicidal by gratuitously creating a bitter new enemy and driving Ukraine into NATO’s arms. For the foreseeable future Russia will have large quantities of troops and equipment tied down in and around Ukraine—forces that could have been better deployed, per Moscow’s reputed security trepidations, to deter or repel NATO aggression. In fact, Russian behavior only makes sense if Ukraine itself is Moscow’s real target, and the NATO threat merely a pretext.
Incidentally, the enormous lengths to which Moscow has gone to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO make a mockery of the argument that Russia’s anti-NATO-enlargement campaign is rooted in legitimate security concerns. Even if the sensational allegations of Russian complicity in a Montenegrin coup attempt prove to be overblown, Moscow’s actions have been utterly out of proportion to any genuine security threat to Russia from tiny, distant Montenegro. A realistic assessment would compel us to seek other explanations for Moscow’s aversion to NATO.
I would challenge those who harp about NATO’s alleged threat to Russian security to be more specific. It is not enough to point to some vague “approach of NATO infrastructure toward Russia’s borders.” No one in the history of warfare has ever been invaded by infrastructure. Kindly explain precisely where these aggressive NATO forces are deployed, and how are they configured. Where is NATO massing the enormous armies and huge quantities of heavy weaponry that would be required for a land invasion of Russia? Then please consider what military means Russia has at its disposal, and explain how the yawning gap between the scopes of these two forces constitutes a threat to Russia rather than from Russia. And if the answer is that the NATO threat to Russia is admittedly not immediate but latent, I would rejoin that Russia could manipulate concern about a “latent” security threat as justification to invade any of its neighbors at any time—which, of course, is exactly why so many of Russia’s neighbors have been eager to join NATO in the first place.
Similarly, there is no real basis for believing that, absent NATO enlargement, harmony would have reigned in Europe and in the West’s relations with Russia. Any refusal by NATO to enlarge would have still left unresolved the more fundamental disconnect between Russia’s ambitions and the preferences of Russia’s neighbors. The eastern half of Europe would have seen more conflicts, not fewer, as an unrestrained Russia brought pressure to bear on even more of its recalcitrant neighbors. Russian-Western comity would have been disrupted by, if nothing else, the flood of millions of refugees from the Caucasus, Ukraine, the Baltic States, and—heaven forbid—possibly even Central Europe.
There was nothing sinister, gratuitous, or even strange about the post-Cold War enlargement of Euro-Atlantic organizations, and their enlargement is a symptom rather than the cause of the crisis in Western relations with Russia. Had Russia been evolving into the sort of country that could have partnered with the West based on shared values and interests, then Moscow would not have objected to the enlargement of Euro-Atlantic organizations in the first place—and Russia’s neighbors would have felt less compulsion to seek membership. Russian complaints about post-Cold War European security architecture, as well as Western analysis sympathetic to the Russian point of view, have focused entirely on the “supply side”: NATO’s incomprehensible failure to dry up and blow away at the end of the Cold War, and its obstinate, selfish refusal to slam the door shut on prospective new members. This perspective completely ignores the “demand side: the legitimate security interests of Russia’s Central European and post-Soviet neighbors—their threat perception, enflamed in large part by Russia’s own behavior.
The hallmark of continued Cold War-era thinking is the sort of Manichaean analysis that still envisions Europe as some kind of chessboard where the superpowers play out their moves and make all the important decisions. That perspective was deficient even during the Cold War, and it’s completely inadequate to today’s realities. Any serious attempt to bridge the gap between Russia and the West must begin with a sober recognition of the multiplicity of actors and interests involved.
European security cannot be predicated on satisfying Moscow’s longing for a bloc of its own. As predictable as the laws of physics, efforts to force countries into the Eurasian camp will have the equal and opposite reaction of increasing the demand for NATO membership. We can no more compel Russia’s neighbors to be part of the Russian World than we could compel Russia to be part of the West.